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Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy
by Andrew Preston
Knopf, 832 pages, $37.50

America, G. K. Chesterton famously observed, is “a nation with the soul of a church.” In his masterful new survey Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith , Cambridge historian Andrew Preston demonstrates that the influence of religion in American life has been as pervasive in diplomacy and warfare as it has been in domestic politics and culture.

Preston’s approach to his subject is disinterested and evenhanded. He avoids judgment on the wisdom or morality of American foreign policy and offers no evaluation as to whether the influence of religion in shaping that policy has been a salutary one. His analytical assessments are acute and provocative, but he displays no ideological bias in laying them out or, indeed, any indication of his own religious or political inclinations. It’s refreshing to encounter such an admirably old-fashioned exercise in objective historical analysis—and all the more so to see it brought off with such intelligence, sophistication, and grace.

The scheme of the book is at once ambitious and restrained. It provides a comprehensive and exhaustively researched account of the shaping influence of religion on foreign affairs from the nation’s colonial origins through the presidency of Ronald Reagan (a hurried and hopelessly condensed concluding chapter—one suspects a publisher’s influence—dashes from Bush the elder to Barack Obama in fewer than fifteen pages), but it imposes no dominant theme on that account. It highlights recurring motifs in the conduct of foreign policy but is everywhere sensitive to complexity, nuance, and ambiguity.

It is religion’s ubiquitous influence on foreign relations, Preston suggests, that explains why America’s foreign policy has so often taken on the “tenor of a moral crusade.” But if religion has served as the primary source of the tendency to idealism in foreign relations, he notes, it has not been univocal in its effects. Its presence can be felt in justificatory themes of American forcefulness—providence, manifest destiny, the New Jerusalem, the shining city on a hill—but it also has been the fount of contrary impulses toward pacifism, anti-imperialism, anti-interventionism, and internationalism.

Indeed, critics of American policy have been as quick as its defenders to rest their arguments on religious grounds. Preston argues not that religion has determined American foreign policy—that, he concedes, would claim too much—but that, in diplomacy as elsewhere, it has been a taken-for-granted part of the language of politics.

The most obvious reason why religion has counted in foreign affairs is that policymakers, like the vast majority of their countrymen, have themselves been religious (Preston’s survey reminds us that most American presidents have been genuinely pious Christians), and even those who were not recognized the need to take into account the religious sentiments of their constituents.

Beyond that, Americans gave religious sentiments a significant place in their diplomacy because they could afford to. Unlike most nations, the United States had the luxury of free security. Protected by two oceans, strategically unthreatened on their own continent, Americans were less bound than other nations by the imperatives of realpolitik and comparatively free to imagine”and even, on occasion, to conduct”an idealistic diplomacy in which the meliorating impulses of religion had more than customary influence.

The faith culture in which diplomacy operated was not, of course, simply one of religion in general. It was specifically Christian, and for the greater part of the nation’s history Protestant Christian. Beginning in the colonial period—when, Preston notes, Protestant Christianity was the English settlers’ most common tie—and proceeding well into the twentieth century, most Americans saw the survival and flourishing of Protestantism as essential to the survival and flourishing of the nation. Theirs was a crusading faith, committed initially to the conversion (or removal) of the Indians and the containment of Catholicism, and it linked the spread of Protestantism to the spread of liberty and prosperity.

Religious and political ideas came together most substantively (and most enduringly) in the idea of “Christian republicanism,” which combined Protestant theology with Lockean Whig liberalism. The revolutionary generation’s embrace of republicanism was based on a natural law theory of God-given rights and freedoms that existed antecedent to all political authority.

But if republican liberty was to be sustained, it required a virtuous people, and the necessary source of virtue was religion. As Preston nicely summarizes the argument: “If [a] republic was essential for liberty, and virtue was essential for a republic, and religion was essential for virtue, then religion was essential to a healthy republic.”

It was inevitable that a religion-saturated society would produce a religion-saturated political culture. Since religion and politics make for a volatile mix, this has raised the ideological temperature of American public life, including diplomatic life. Americans confronted the world with a crusading spirit, and they often turned on each other in intense disagreement as to the nature or rightness of particular crusades.

Take, for example (and one can only touch on notable instances in Preston’s panoramic survey), the Civil War, where the victorious North’s “ideology of universal redemption,” presupposing America’s duty to promote and protect liberty wherever possible, resulted in what Preston suggestively terms the nation’s first war of “humanitarian intervention.”

That same spirit of universal redemption, appropriate to a society that saw itself as God’s latter-day chosen people, increasingly led the United States in an expansionist and interventionist direction in the world, though almost never without provoking significant internal controversy and dissent. Preston traces those controversies—always with careful balance and subtle appreciation of conflicting views—in America’s four twentieth-century “crusades”: the conflicts over Cuba and the Philippines following the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and the Cold War.

Similarly, while almost all American Christians once believed that church-directed missionary work was central to the nation’s responsibility to the world, they held conflicting views about what mission work should accomplish. Until America’s emergence as a world power at the turn of the twentieth century, most of them focused on saving souls, converting “heathens” into Christians.

But the liberalizing theological influences of modernism gradually turned mainstream Protestantism away from evangelism and toward an ethical application of Christian teaching, acting as “an international extension of the Social Gospel” and an unofficial participant in the larger American project of what Preston calls the “imperialism of human rights.”

The author does not put it this way, but what happened in private missions serves as a rough model for the trajectory of public religious influence, at least among most Protestants, on diplomatic developments. The pattern of events, though often uneven and never uncontested, moved in an ecumenical, secular, humanist direction.

The old piety, to be sure, lingered well into the twentieth century. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed several official days of prayer (Preston convincingly portrays FDR as more deeply pious than many have supposed), and Harry Truman followed suit in marking the victories over Germany and Japan. And in Preston’s estimation, Dwight Eisenhower’s understanding of postwar Russian-American differences rested on an updated version of Christian republicanism: A Soviet Union without religion would be a Soviet Union without liberty.

It was the collapse of the anticommunist Cold War consensus that presaged the turn toward the secular in the Protestant establishment. Eisenhower’s first Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, served as the establishment’s most prominent public figure from the 1930s until his death in 1959. Ecumenical in theology, devout in piety, he combined over the course of his career the tensions between liberal internationalism and conservative anticommunism common to his generation.

Those tensions reflected competing strands of realism and idealism in both diplomacy and religious thought. One thinks here most obviously of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose neo-orthodox theology kept in rough balance social-democratic instincts and (mostly) liberal Protestantism, with a disdain for sentimentality, political or religious, rooted in insistence on original sin.

The 1960s, the most disruptive decade in modern American history, demolished that uneasy equilibrium. From the raging moral conflict over Vietnam onward, the shape and focus of religious disagreement shifted. The Protestant-Catholic divide was gradually replaced by coalitions of conservative Protestants and Catholics—with Evangelicals prominent among the former—pitted against their liberal denominational counterparts. That realignment in turn reflected the emerging priority of ideology over theology in the interplay between politics and religion.

As Preston shows, religious identification became defined at least as much by where people stood on divisive political issues as on debated items of doctrine. The religious influence on foreign policy did not disappear, but the Protestant establishment’s rapid dissolution during the decade made it less effective than before.

The divisions engendered by the war in Vietnam lingered on in the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. And even with the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, the foreign policy differences between liberals and conservatives—and the religious divisions that coincide with them—have perpetuated themselves, though in somewhat less incendiary form, right up to the present.

Chesterton’s nation with the soul of a church is today a divided congregation. Preston’s splendid history illuminates how we came to our present pass. That history cannot, of course, patch over our abiding and legitimate differences, but its author’s supple combination of hard thought and sympathetic imagination demonstrates how the friction generated by our finally irresolvable moral conflicts might best serve the perpetual dialectic of democratic politics.

James Nuechterlein is an editor at large of First Things and a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

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